Chana Mlotek, renowned musicologist and folklorist specializing in Yiddish music, theatre, and poetry, was interviewed by Hankus Netsky on August 15, 2011 at the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research in New York City.
Born in Brooklyn, New York, in 1922, Eleanor “Chana” Gordon and her older sister Malka grew up in the Sholem Aleichem Amalgamated Homes in the Bronx where they were immersed in Yiddish language and culture. Their father was an amateur actor who instilled a love for Yiddish music in his daughters, both of whom played piano and wrote music.
After her normal school day, Chana attended a Yiddish school operated by the Workmen’s Circle three days a week, followed by a Yiddish High School run by the Sholem Aleichem Folk Institute of New York. She later attended Hunter College where she studied French, Spanish, Latin, and Italian followed by Musicology and Theory. She was inspired by people like Pipe and Cahan and read all their works about Yiddish folklore and music.
The Sholem Aleichem Folk Institute also ran Camp Boiberik, a Yiddish cultural summer camp which Chana loved, attending from 1931. Campers performed plays, learned Yiddish songs and listened to guest lecturers and performers. As an adult, Chana returned to Camp Boiberik, taking responsibility for musical activities. For example, Chana describes how she improved the Felker Yontef (People’s Holiday), a highlight of the camp program. All nations were represented in song, dance and costume. Chana sings one of her Felker Yontef compositions and some excerpts from the camp’s Shabbos (Sabbath) performances.
In 1944, Chana went to work at YIVO (Yidisher Visnshaftlekher Institut, Institute for Jewish Research), which was founded by Max Weinreich in Vilna, Lithuania, in 1925. She became Weinreich’s secretary in 1946, taking over from Lucy Davidovich. Weinreich was a mentor and inspiration for Chana. His Yiddish was “like music” and his attention to detail provided an invaluable lesson for her future work.
YIVO awarded Chana a scholarship to the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) in 1948 to attend Weinreich’s Yiddish linguistics and folklore courses. The course included songs and music, a major interest of Chana’s. There she met Joseph (Yosl) Mlotek, her future husband, who was also a scholarship student. On their return to New York they formed the Y. L. Cahan Folklore Club named after Yehuda Leib Cahan, a major collector and writer of Yiddish folklore. Other members of the club included Uriel and Bina Weinreich, Max’s son and daughter-in-law. Among their many activities was the publication of Yidisher Folklor (Yiddish/Jewish Folklore) magazine which collected songs and information about composers and lyricists.
Due to illness, Chana left YIVO in the early 1970s. Chana and Yosl, who had been education director of the Workman’s Circle and was now associate editor of the Forverts, the Yiddish-language Jewish Daily Forward, began writing a bi-weekly column called “Perl fun der Yidisher Poezie” (“Pearls of Yiddish Poetry”). Readers would submit queries about Yiddish songs or poems which the Mloteks would identify. They would also set puzzles and questions for readers to answer. Over the years, the Mloteks gathered thousands of songs which led to the publication of three well-respected anthologies of Yiddish songs: Mir Trogn a Gezang (We Are Carrying a Song), Perl fun der Yidisher Poezie (Pearls of Yiddish Song) and Songs of Generations: New Pearls of Yiddish Song. Chana proudly displays these publications along with We Are Here: Songs of the Holocaust and 25 Ghetto Songs. Chana talks about some of her other works such as writing ten songs to Sutzkever poems and publishing collections such as Lomir Zingen: Lider far Yidishe Kinder (Let’s Sing: Songs for Yiddish/Jewish Children), Yontefdike Teg (Holidays, Songbook for the Jewish Holidays).
Chana describes some of her husband’s early life. While still in Warsaw, Yosl organized radio and theatre programs at the Medem Sanatorium, an educational and clinical facility for children and young adults at risk for tuberculosis near Warsaw, Poland. He wrote for Di Kleyne Folkstsaytung (The People’s Small Newspaper), a Bundist publication. He was sent to report on the pogrom in Przytyk which was the basis for the famous Moishe Gebirtig song, “Undzer shtetl brent” (“Our shtetl is burning”). Yosl then went to Vilna, Lithuania, where he worked on eyewitness testimonies of Jewish refugees. With a transit visa from Chiune Sugihara, Vice-Consul for the Empire of Japan in Lithuania, he escaped Europe for Japan and then went to Shanghai where he became a librarian in the Russian library and also worked on Yiddish newspapers. Yosl lived in Shanghai for seven years until he moved to Calgary in 1947, where he worked for two years until he received the scholarship to study Yiddish linguistics and folklore at UCLA.
Returning to her own activities, Chana describes how, through her children’s Yiddish School mothers’ club, she organized shows and plays. These activities were very important in fostering a sense of Yiddishkeit (Jewishness). They performed Hershele Ostropolyer, a well-known humorous musical play. Chana found the music, adapted it and “it was a hit.” Chana lists some of the many shows and plays that were performed, such as Sholem Aleichem’s Dos groyse gevins (The Big Lottery/The Jackpot), Khasane in shtetl (Wedding in the Village) by Yosl Mlotek, Lider fun Itzik Manger (Songs by Itzik Manger,) and A Gilbert & Sullivan Purim Shpil by Chana based on Gilbert and Sullivan’s music and songs with new words written in Yiddish. The shows were full of fun and involved the whole community.
Following the provision of a National Endowment for the Humanities grant to organize some of YIVO’s collections, Chana returned to work there in 1978. Although untrained, Chana developed appropriate skills while working on many collections such as the Cahan collection; the ethnographic community of Vilna collection of 700 songs; the Litvin (a journalist and folklorist) collection; the Shulim Nigur (a major literary critic) collection, which is one of largest collections at YIVO; the Joseph Opatashu Collection (containing letters from Chagall); the Morris Rosenfeld collection; and the Goldfaden Collection.
In 1984 she started working with YIVO’s music collections including the Weiner, Heifetz, Szmulewicz, and Yaffa collections. Chana describes some of the many delights in these collections such as seeing Chagall’s drawings on his letters. At the time of this interview she is working on the Hebrew Actors’ Union collection dating from 1888 which includes works by Michal Finkelstein, Hellman, Arnold Perlmutter, Hermann Wohl and Shmierke Kascerginski. Chana loves this work: “Every day is a learning experience for me.”
Chana has written many articles on a wide range of topics such as the works of Velvel Zbarjer, Goldfaden compositions that were originally thought to be folk songs, Sholem Aleichem music and songs, American folk songs, music collections she has worked upon, and Yiddish folk songs. Chana displays some of her YIVO catalogues of sheet music, choral music, and composers and compilers. She proudly displays the English translation of Pearls of Yiddish Poetry and Yiddish Folksongs from the Ruth Rubin Collection, published by YIVO.
Asked why folklore is important, Chana replies that it enriches life. It’s part of one’s culture and heritage, that one gets to learn why we conform to certain traditions and practices and to learn about one’s roots. Chana remarks that musicians like Hankus Netsky have introduced young people to klezmer which means more young people are learning and singing Yiddish. Chana states that music is important because it is natural; the love of Yiddish music, combined with the feeling of being Jewish, creates an even stronger combination.
To learn more about the Wexler Oral History Project, visit: www.yiddishbookcenter.org/tell-your-story
To cite this interview: Chana Mlotek Oral History Interview, interviewed by Hankus Netsky, Yiddish Book Center's Wexler Oral History Project, YIVO, August 15, 2011. Video recording, http://archive.org/details/ChanaMlotek15aug2011YiddishBookCenter ( [date accessed] )